Deep work: learning faster and deeper, performing better

Teresa Amabile advocated, based on her research, for, at least on several days of the week, making time to focus and work undisturbed, at least for half an hour to an hour, on work that is most meaningful for you (see here). Cal Newport, professor of computer science and author of the book Deep work goes a step further. He argues that in nearly every profession a much better productivity and more satisfaction can be achieved by using an approach he calls deep work.

What is deep work?

What Newport means with deep work is committing yourself to long blocks of highly concentrated work on cognitively challenging tasks without any interruption. If you manage to work deeply for several of such blocks each day your productivity and work satisfaction will increase vastly, according to Newport.

Many people are aware that multitasking does not work. But since several years it is also known how harmful it is to have to shift your attention frequently while you are working. These attention shifts may be elicited by external factors. Open offices, for example, can cause people to be distracted easily by the many triggers which the environment constantly provides.

(Self-) interruptions and attention residue

But research has shown that we often are inclined to shift our attention ourselves. Examples of such self interruptions are: checking your e-mail every ten minutes, glancing quickly at your Facebook or twitter page, checking for interesting YouTube videos, etc. That we do this, has to do with what Newport calls the principle of least resistance. What he means with this is that we would rather do something easy than something hard. Deep work requires a lot of effort. Checking social media, on the other hand, is easy, and therefore seductive.

Research by Sophie Leroy has demonstrated that this type of self-interruptions can negatively affect your concentration and your task performance. When you pick up your task after the interruption there is what is called attention residue. This means that part of your attention is still focused on the the thing your were focused on during the interruption. This is especially the case if you did not complete what you were doing during the interruption. An example is an e-mail which you have read to which you could not directly respond. 

More fulfillment

That deep work leads to faster and better learning seems obvious but that it also leads to more work satisfaction and fulfillment is perhaps less obvious. An explanation for this is the following. When you are working in full concentration on a challenging task you will not have any attention available for thinking about daily worries. You enter what is called a state of flow. Years ago, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered that such states of mind are quite fulfilling for people and he called them optimal experiences.

Breaks and really closing your work day

Newport says we should take breaks in ways that make it as easy as possible to get back into your deep concentration after your break. The way to do this is to keep your breaks relatively brief, for example ten minutes. If you want to a longer break you could use it for eating or taking a walk. Walking in nature is especially advisable because, as research shows, this has an attention restoring effect.

Newport also argues for really finishing your workday when your work is done and not get back to it under any circumstances in the evening. By doing this you can focus your attention of different types of activities. This will give your brain the opportunity to rest and your attention to restore. Newport says that trying to keep on working deeply throughout the day is useless, anyway. Even a trained person can maximally manage to work deeply more than about four hours.

Question: what opportunities do you see to applies these ideas?